So to begin the list, which is layed out in no particular order of importance, I want to start with The Mars Volta's 2003 full length debut De-loused in the the Comatorium.
First I'm going to attempt to save this damsel in distress from the bitter claws of the too-self-conscious breed of indie music reviewers, then I want to get on to some real cannonizing.
Critics of the Album site a few key aversions:
1. The ablum has zero filter for modesty or scale.
2. The lyrics are self-gratifying gibberish.
3. Toooo jammy...please play the 5 chords i know!
I want to point out that the first 2 statements are the albums strengths and are mistaken as its weaknesses, and that the third, if you give the album any sort of honest listen, is just lazy.
I'll be the first person to admit that after having listened to this album at least 100 times I have very little idea what the proported "story" is actaully about, nor does it matter. If you want to judge it on those terms thats fine but your missing the point. Better to look at Deloused as a work of inspired surrealism.
The album fades in with an angular back and forth guitar time-keeper which mimes the sound of sirens while washes of synth and guitar swells fade in and out like electric medical equipment. The first set of lyrics paint a pessimistic picture of a hospital ward and the frustration builds in staccoto guitar and drum blasts until the album begins proper with the forlorn narrator screaming: Now I'm Lost! as the music erupts around him like satan's own salsa freak-out turned up to a hellish 150 BPM.
It's safe to say I was irrevoacably taken at this point. Everything that Cedric Bixler and Omar Lopez were doing right with At-the-drive-in's Relationship of Command they were now furthering with De-loused. Relationship's raw poetics, fierce urgency, and brazen experimentalism were all present with an injection of latin rhythm and operatic vocals.
ATDI's main reason for dissolving was that the afore meantioned beleived that thier trademark brand of post-punk just wasn't giving enough reign to thier predoliction for artisic expansion. And so, ATDI dissolved forming The Mars Volta, but also Sparta, who did a fine job of keeping up the ghost of many of ATDI's best qualities for about an album and a half.
If you take The Mars Volta's narrative bait, which isn't really necessary to enjoy the album, our narrator is a man trapped in his own head. Much like the protagonist in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly but without the hopefull tone. He is a man stuck in dreams, a place where emotions take free reign, and connections between dispareate elements are barely traceable but often rewarding. In this context ,you might begin to get a picture of how I digest this album and why I keep going back to it.
And, cinema is really where the best comparisons lie. For me, one of the closest comparisons is Fellini's Satyricon. As Fellini's camera pans past, deformed figures stare with a mixture of fear, confusion, disgust, or apathy framed by a crumbling and cascading architecture. Voices fade in and out confessing thier dark desires. Ancient mythology is vulgarly evoked. The effect is unsettling. As viewer I'm left with memorable images that have definate, yet understated connections, like waking dreams. The Volta could likely be better appreciated in comparison to other Latin-American surrealists, yet I lack the experience to conjure up anything more than a few Garcia-Marquez shorts and Frida Kahlu paintings.
But back to the point, TMV like surrealist cinema treat their albums as high art. One example of this comes in the form of another Volta trait that critics can't stomach and that's the large expanses of quiet electonics and down tempos which frame thier frantic episodes. In the art world you might call this "negative space" a concept which is used to enrich a compostion by bringing aspects to the forefront. With deloused TMVs use of negative space is very obvious. What many critics denounce as gratuitous noodling, is to me a perfectly paced and lushly produced frame for their explosions of imagery.
De-loused ...Produced by Rick Rubin
Rubin's Vase. (coincidence?)
Lopez' guitar is capable of carrying the melody of any song on deloused and does on a few occasions, yet when its not, and hes teaming up with drummer John Theodore to create a song's rhythmic soundscape the effect is tight and hermetic. While Lopez is highly capable of noodling around he is kind enough to save it for the live show and his solo project.
Most of the highest points on De-loused, an album filled with otherworldly "moments", though are when the rhythmic engine churns while Bixler provides the self-assured melodies. His voice and range are capable of feats which few men can boast.. His melodies feel at the same time ancient and futuristic, and they project the lyrics with confidence that suggests they are somewhere inscribed in granite. His lyrics are full of creative juxtaposions, what he leaves behind in consistancy he more than makes up for in shear freshness of image. Yet an emotional strain of confusion, forlorness, and uncertainty rings throughout De-loused, which really pulls it together thematically and makes for an equally exultant and cathartic listen.
It's not meant to be easy to intellectualize a Mars Volta album. I'm tempted to say that some of the "inspirations" they offer like finding a lost diary or an old quija board seem more like interesting bait for concept junkies like myself, which may never flesh out a narrative, but perhaps provide some sort of intellectual framework for those who need a conveniant mode of peristalsis. Other times they seem like an elaborate joke played by the gods on our tiny little hob-goblin minds.
If this Interpretation of the album is true, and it seems pretty legit, it makes classic-rock geek gods RUSH look like Andrew W.K. on a particularly lazy day.
In my estimation Bixler and Lopez have made 6 great albums, everything from ATDI's In-Casino-Out on up to TMV's Amputecture. They took a necessary leap after Relationship of Command(an album which would likly be on this list were it not overshadowed by De-loused)...and made a work of art which exceeds the camp of their moniker and gives the over used modifiers "mind-bending" or "epic" a comfortable place to hang out and be sincere.
Today I listened to the album again focusing on the lyrics with a little help from LyricWiki.org and the albums own Wiki page (which has a link to a story book which came with a special edition release) in order to make some sort of sense of the story.
Starting with the basic premis which is: Friend of the band Julio Venegas(mexican surrealist painter) overdoses on rat poison, falls into a coma, and does battle with his subconcious, only to wake up from the coma a week later and jump off an overpass into traffic a la Kafka's The Judgement.
The lyrics are uber-opaque, but I was able to get a sense of the arc of the story which is so well layed out in the above interpretation that I've decided not to do my own inferior version.
If you already love the album then I hope I've done it some justice. If you don't already love it, then that means you've never heard it. In which case, get the album, kick everyone out of the house, get in your socks on the linoleum, put the good china in the cabinet, and get your air drumsticks ready, I'll see you in a week.